Q&A: Journey To The Center Of Mike Birbiglia

EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview originally published back in 2014. On the occasion of comedian Mike Birbiglia’s two night stand at Merriam Theater on Friday and Saturday, we present this encore edition. Enjoy.

BYLINER mecroppedsharp_1BY JONATHAN VALANIA Welcome to another round of  Stupid Answers To Stupid Questions. Actually, that’s only half true. Comedian Mike Birbiglia, of Sleepwalk With Me fame, provided pretty smart answers to our stupid questions. DISCUSSED: Getting bladder cancer at 19; what he and Terry Gross talk about when they are not robbing banks; the strangest place he ever rubbed one out; whether the rumors are true that while Ira Glass seems like a nice guy on the radio, off the air he is real bastard — eating puppies, skinning cats more than one way, poking babies with a sharp stick in Reno just to watch them cry, that kind of thing; the last book he read/movie he saw/album he heard that completely changed his perspective and why. And much, much more.

PHAWKER: First off, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, your latest stand-up comedy special, is a tour de force. As always with your work there is a good deal of pathos woven into the laugh lines. Was that a conscious decision you made you were finding your voice as a comedian? That you wanted to go for something more than just the laugh? That you wanted to say something about the human condition?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, in the sense that I had a goal of being both a comedian and a screenwriter and a playwright. That’s what I studied in school, that’s what I’m most moved by. This week my wife and I were re-watching all of Cameron Crowe’s movies. We were watching Say Anything, Almost Famous, Jerry Macguire. It’s movies like that and James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News and Terms of Endearment, that really got me interested in comedy. Those kinds of movies where there are a ton of jokes and the story sneaks up on you. The characters sneak up on you. And at a certain point you really care about the characters. So when I moved to New York, I’d studied playwriting and screenwriting and I wanted to merge those things long term. And it took about 10 years to do it. I started doing standup when I was about 19 and it wasn’t until I was about 28 years old where I was able to kind of merge those things in the one man show Sleepwalk With Me and then subsequently My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and then the movie of Sleepwalk With Me.

PHAWKER: In My GF’s BF you talk about men being able to masturbate successfully in just about any situation, including driving a car. Have you ever? If not, what is the strangest/funniest place you’ve, um, self-gratified?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I simply don’t recall.

PHAWKER: How convenient. What do you and Terry Gross talk about when you’re not robbing banks?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I’ve always been a huge fan of Terry’s show and continue to be—I’m an avid Fresh Air listener and I felt really lucky to work with her. Ira is friends with her and when started working on that short film for This American Life he asked her if she’d consider doing that part I’d written for her as a fictionalized version of herself. And she was—and I know this might sound silly because she’s not a professional actress—she was one of the most enjoyable actresses I’ve ever worked with.

PHAWKER: I heard that while Ira Glass seems like a nice guy on the radio, off the air he is real bastard — eating puppies, skinning cats more than one way, poking babies with a sharp stick in Reno just to watch them cry, that kind of thing — any truth to that?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Ira is exactly the same as he is on the radio except he curses more. He doesn’t curse at people, he just curses at the world. But no, he’s the best guy, he’s a really good friend and a great mentor. He’s taught me so much about narrative and I feel very lucky to work with him.

PHAWKER: Was the title to Sleepwalk With Me a hat tip to David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Yes and no. I’m familiar with the title but I’ve never seen it. So I think that sentence structure is probably somewhere in my subconscious but I did not make a conscious choice to match that.

PHAWKER: Sleepwalk With Me is the only film in recent memory to star a female lead/romantic interest with a prominent mole/birth mark. Where you intentionally, some might say shamelessly, sucking up to that largely untapped demo of beautiful girls with prominent moles that has, heretofore, been so woefully under-represented in Hollywood films?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I didn’t notice that she had one.

PHAWKER: They say love is blind. You suffer from rapid eye movement disorder, which once caused you to jump out a second story window when you dreamt that missile was about to hit the motel you were in. Is REM disorder something that can be cured or merely controlled with medication and preventive measures — like wearing mittens to bed, etc.? Can you describe your pre-sleep routine to control/harm reduce your condition?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: As I say in the movie, there’s no cure for what I have, you can only deal with it on a day to day basis. In my case I sleep in a sleeping bag and I take medication prescribed by a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders. I’m always reluctant to diagnose people’s sleep issue because people approach me a lot with their sleep issues. They’re like, ‘I do that too! What should I do?’ And I’m like, ‘You should see a doctor because I am a comedian.’

PHAWKER: You have a new movie coming out this summer called The Fault In Our Stars about two teenage cancer patients who fall in love. Judging by the trailer it looks like a heartwarming tale. (I welled up watching it, but if you tell anybody I said that I will deny it and probably sue.) You play a guy named Patrick, who runs the support group for teens with cancer where the two leads meet cute and fall in love. What did you do to prepare for the role? Did you attend one of these type of support groups or give yourself cancer just so you’d know what it feels like?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I actually had cancer…ZING!!! I did, I had a bladder tumor when I was 19. They took it out and I was very fortunate—I didn’t have to go through chemo or radiation but I did have that experience of feeling like my life could end very soon for a period of time. I talk about it on Sleepwalk With Me Live on a track called ‘There’s Something In My Bladder.’ But yeah, I watched a lot of cancer therapy videos to try to understand how those groups work. They’re actually very inspiring, there’s a lot on YouTube that you can look up and they’re very empowering and moving. I also learned how to knit, I went to a knitting class, because the character knits. And I wrote a few songs on guitar for the class, I
don’t know if they’re in the movie but I play guitar a little so I practiced a bit.

PHAWKER: What was the last book you read that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: There’s this book I just recently read called Plutocrats that’s about the powerful billionaire class in the world that has a disproportionate amount of power in their country’s governments based on how much money they have. The book is very eye-opening about what’s happened in the last 20 years in terms of the financial world and where things could go in the future. And it really stuck with me—I finished it a few weeks ago and I reference it in my head almost every day.

PHAWKER: What was the last movie you saw that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: This week I saw The National’s documentary Mistaken For Strangers and I thought it was really, really touching and really funny. It’s a band that I’ve been a huge fan of for 10 years and the movie gives a lot of insight into where the songs come from, which is great as a fan. But then as just a human being it has a lot of insight into family relationships and siblings—it’s about the lead singer Matt and his brother Tom primarily. And it was amazing. I went to the premier and I was able to meet Matt and Tom, which was pretty thrilling.

PHAWKER: What was the last album you heard that totally changed your perspective? How? Why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I think the albums that changed my perspective on life were the Bob Dylan albums, most notably Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That’s probably the album that changed my life the most, like back in my 20’s when I really dug into it. Recently, the closest thing to that would be Kanye. I think Dark Twisted Fantasy is challenging in this way that makes you think about race and gender and all these things in a very complicated, sometimes disturbing, way.

PHAWKER: Hypothetical: you wake up in the middle of the night, your house is on fire, there is only time to grab one comedy album. Which one do you grab and why?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: I think Richard Pryor: Live at the Sunset Strip. It was the archetype for Sleepwalk With Me actually, when my director Seth Barrish and I developed that show. Because he talks about how he was lit on fire when he was freebasing cocaine and there’s that moment when they’re taking off the bandages at the hospital and he’s just expressing that pain. And the special is so funny and so loose and it has so much pathos and so much pain and so much life in it, I feel like it has the full range of emotions that you’d want in a comedy special.

PHAWKER: What was the last joke somebody told you that made you laugh out loud?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Well Chris Gethard, who’s actually opening up the show in Philadelphia, has this joke that kills me. It’s about how on Mother’s Day his mother told him that she was gonna tell him something about his birth that she hadn’t revealed to him or his dad their whole lives. And that was that Chris’ head was so big that when he started to come out, the doctor exclaimed something like, ‘Dear God, it’s huge! His head is huge!’ And then the punchline is, ‘I never thought I’d have to apologize to my mother on Mother’s Day. And I never thought I’d have to apologize to my father on Mother’s Day.’ And it’s just a great joke. It’s a super tight joke—no pun intended.